There’s a lot to learn from the world’s most prolific minds.
We hear a lot about how eccentric some of the most famous writers and artists were in their productivity routines. Take for example Beethoven, who counted each and every one of the 60 coffee beans for his morning coffee. Or Honoré de Balzac, who drank as many as 50 cups of black coffee every day. How about Igor Stravinsky, who stood on his head whenever he felt uninspired?
But others, if not most, of their productivity secrets were pretty down to earth and common sense.
We sometimes forget that even those we regard as most talented and most productive, those that we almost idolize for their creativity, are human beings just like you and me. What makes them stand out, and what we often refuse to see because it’s less glamorous to acknowledge, is that they work hard and have an unwavering work ethic.
So let’s take a look at some of the world’s greatest minds, and what productivity secrets helped them produce their best work.
Break down your tasks
Do you think your mornings are busy? Think again!
Anthony Trollope, one of the most productive Victorian era novelists, wrote 3000 words every morning. That is, every morning, at 5:30 am, before going on to his day job at the post office. He kept this routine for over 33 years, and went on to write no less than 47 novels.
He undertook writing as a second job, and although he knew he didn’t have to write for the publishers, Trollope made it his mission to stick to his self-imposed rules.
But Trollope didn’t just dive into the 3000 daily words that he needed to write. No, instead, he divided his work into chunks of 250 words (what he defined as a page) for every 15 minutes. After three hours, he’d have 3000 words. Trollope was also quite meticulous in counting every word as he was writing.
He kept a daily record of the number of pages he wrote, never allowing himself to slip away.
“When I have commenced a new book, I have always prepared a diary, divided into weeks, and carried it on for the period which I have allowed myself for the completion of the work. In this I have entered, day by day, the number of pages I have written, so that if at any time I have slipped into idleness for a day or two, the record of that idleness has been there, staring me in the face, and demanding of me increased labour, so that the deficiency might be supplied.” ~ Anthony Trollope - An Autobiography
Delve in menial tasks
There’s something about mindless work that seems to unblock creative juices. Have you ever noticed how you might get your best ideas when you’re doing the dishes or vacuuming?
Choreographer George Balanchine apparently did most of his work in the morning, as he was doing the ironing for the day.
“When I’m ironing, that’s when I do most of my work.” ~ George Balanchine
Perhaps more famously, Woody Allen swears by the what a hot shower can do to the stuck creative mind.
“In the shower, with the hot water coming down, you've left the real world behind, and very frequently things open up for you.” ~ Woody Allen
Be comfortable in your working environment
Pianist and composer George Gershwin worked - according to his brother, Ira - at his piano for twelve hours a day, in his pyjamas, bathrobe and slippers. He started in late morning and went on until midnight.
No doubt that if Gershwin would have been comfortable composing in a tuxedo, he would have worked in a tuxedo. But instead, he chose to work in his PJs and slippers - because that’s how he felt most comfortable.
So much for that office dress code, hm?!
Take time to reflect
Both Joan Didion and Maya Angelou take time to reflect on the day’s work.
In a 1968 Paris Review interview, Joan Didion said:
“I need an hour alone before dinner, with a drink, to go over what I’ve done that day. I can’t do it late in the afternoon because I’m too close to it. Also, the drink helps. It removes me from the pages. So I spend this hour taking things out and putting other things in.”
On the other hand, Maya Angelou reviews her morning work after dinner.
But no matter when you choose to review your day’s work, there’s a lot of value in doing so. For both Didion and Angelou, it gives them a hint on where to start working on the next day.
Stick to a rigorous routine
Writer Haruki Murakami sticks to a very rigorous routine. He is a notorious runner, which he picked up to stay fit after he had decided to become a writer.
This is what he had to say in a Paris Review interview about his routine while working on a novel:
“When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at 4:00 am and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for 10km or swim for 1500m (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at 9:00 pm. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.”
Murakami also parallels building endurance as a runner with building endurance as a novelist - and perhaps not coincidentally, he picked up both writing and running at the same time. His routine resulted in over 30 years of efficient work.
Admit when something doesn’t work
Some of the most talented writers are in fact great self-editors. Take for example Maya Angelou:
“And more often than not if I’ve done nine pages I may be able to save two and a half or three. That’s the cruelest time you know, to really admit that it doesn’t work. And to blue pencil it. When I finish maybe fifty pages and read them — fifty acceptable pages — it’s not too bad.”
Same with Ernest Hemingway. In a 1934 letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald, he wrote:
“I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.”
So it’s not that these writers are so talented that they never write crap. They do write crap. But they also have the courage to discard the work that is not up to par.
Nobody’s work is 100% awesome all the time. Know when yours isn’t either, and don't be afraid to self-edit.
Be accountable to others
In his autobiography, Isaac Asimov tells about how, as a boy, he used to get up at 6 am every morning to deliver papers, and then rushed home from school to help out in his dad’s candy store every afternoon. If he was late, his father yelled at him, telling him that he was a folyack, an Yiddish word for slacker.
This built a life-long habit for Asimov. More than 50 years later, he wrote:
"It is a point of pride with me that though I have an alarm clock, I never set it, but get up at 6 A.M. anyway. I am still showing my father I'm not a folyack.”
Of course, you’re not doing your work for the sake of your parents, or anyone else for that matter. But by being accountable to others, like Asimov was to his father, you are more likely to stick with your work even when you don’t feel like it.
Work little by little
Rome wasn’t built in a day.
Even when it might seem that you’re not being productive, being consistent and doing a little bit of work every day will help you get far.
For example, Alice Munro learned to write during her three children’s nap times, in between feedings, and while dinner was being cooked. Yes, it did take almost 20 years to put together her first short story collection, but last year Munro received the Nobel prize for literature.
Gertrude Stein also wrote little by little. In fact, she admitted that she had never been able to write for more than half an hour a day, but she said:
"If you write a half-hour a day, it makes a lot of writing year by year."
Get some privacy
Apparently, Igor Stravinsky was unable to compose unless he was sure that nobody heard him. At one point, he even went as far as to work on a piano kept in a combination lumber storage-chicken coop, where he composed some of his most famous works.
There’s something to be said about getting some privacy. If your work is edited (read: judged) at an early stage, it will certainly reduce your enthusiasm.
It’s also the reason why open-concept offices don’t really work. The loss of privacy usually also results in a loss of productivity for the team members - and even, as it turns out, decreased communication.
Stick with it even when you don’t feel like it
Even Tchaikovsky had bad, unproductive days. His secret? Stick with it!
In a letter to his benefactress Nadezhda von Meck, Tchaikovsky wrote:
“A few days ago I told you I was working every day without any real inspiration. Had I given way to my disinclination, undoubtedly I should have drifted into a long period of idleness. But my patience and faith did not fail me, and to-day I felt that inexplicable glow of inspiration of which I told you; thanks to which I know beforehand that whatever I write to-day will have power to make an impression, and to touch the hearts of those who hear it.” ~ The Life & Letters of Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky
So even when he wasn’t feeling inspired, Tchaikovsky knew the purpose of his work, and that if he stuck with it long enough, he would get his motivation back.
Do you know of any productivity routines of famous people that you’d like to share with us? Leave a comment in the section below!